Feature

Aegis turns to tough operator Buhlmann to regain spark

Not everyone likes him, but no-one doubts Buhlmann's drive, Anna Griffiths reports.

Everyone senior in the media industry has an opinion on Jerry Buhlmann. He is a man who causes a reaction, but that reaction is not one that would necessarily endear you to the man.

His appointment last week as the chief executive of Aegis Media EMEA caused a sharp intake of breath in the industry, followed by some vigorous rubbing of hands with glee.

Predictably some competitors believe Doug Flynn, the chief executive of Aegis Group, has made a huge faux pas with Buhlmann's appointment. His promotion follows the departure of the influential and powerful Eryk Rebbouh and Bruno Kemoun, who built a hugely profitable business in Europe for Carat.

"It's like William Hague trying to emulate Margaret Thatcher -- it's utterly incomparable," one senior rival notes. Another says that Buhlmann is not particularly popular and some think he is arrogant. "Flynn has either lost touch with the core company, is mad or had to make a snap decision," he says.

You would expect sniping from competitors, but some of those who have worked with Buhlmann are not too flattering about him as a person either. One says: "Jerry is a very business-focused and numbers-orientated man, devoid of character or personality. He certainly doesn't have a sense of humour." Another paints a harsher picture: "He's driven by personal ambition. I think what counts with him is to what extent he can use people to get what he wants."

Brian Jacobs, the executive vice-president of Millward Brown's global media evaluation unit and one of the few who would go on the record, says: "He's a man who has never concerned himself with relationships but, on the other hand, he's gone from managing a second-string agency to heading a network, so what do I know?"

But his critics cannot ignore Buhlmann's drive to succeed and the fact that he does have loyal followers. One senior media source says: "With BBJ, he owned a business and was trying to build it and was absolutely passionate about it. He ran a stable ship and a lot of people stayed there a long time."

Chris Boothby, the negotiations director at Vizeum UK who has worked with Buhlmann for 15 years, believes he will be a great leader for Aegis. "He's commercially bright and can see the bigger picture. He's very focused and sometimes that's why people may see him as a prickly character. But he's got a great capacity for seeing bullshit and sorting the wheat from the chaff very quickly."

So Buhlmann is a tough operator and this is something that he would probably not disagree with. He may not like being called manipulative, but to get where he has today he will have faced some tough challenges. Buhlmann says this is what drives him: "I'm someone who needs a challenge. I like to be challenged, stretched and kept busy."

Media has coursed through Buhlmann's veins since his first job at Young & Rubicam in 1980. He nearly took a wrong turning when he signed up for a degree studying mechanical engineering at Surrey University, but decided he "couldn't think of anything worse" and became a media trainee. Nine years later, he co-founded BBJ Media Services, which was acquired by Aegis in 1999, and he became the chief operating officer and later the chief executive of Carat International.

It is this international role that Buhlmann points to when he is asked what experience he can bring to his new role. "One of the big advantages I have is I know a lot of markets in a lot of detail already, have worked globally and I'm used to international travel."

When asked about what he has achieved at Carat International so far, Buhlmann outlines three key functions that he has evolved.

He says the group has improved its international business through consolidation of key accounts and he helped internationalise the business by expanding clients markets from 173 in 1999 to 512 today. He also points to the development of products and services created to add value to clients' business.

Buhlmann says he has no intention of filling the shoes of Rebbouh and Kemoun. "You can't get into the shoes of people who have been in the business that many years and worked in the French market for so long. My task is to make things even more competitive. They were heads of Europe and there are many more managers who have worked on clients across the network. One of the things we are very confident about is that, for those clients, the network has been delivering very effectively."

He faces a tough task re-igniting the competitive spark of Carat Europe, which has been bruised by the growing strength of rival networks, while pulling together and strengthening the global presence of Vizeum.

Industry observers say Buhlmann will have to change his style if he wants to succeed in driving Aegis' European presence. One senior media source says: "In this role, you are as much a nanny as a facilitator. These are not his qualities."

The Buhlmann file

1983 WCRS, associate media director

1985 WCRS, head of Bass buying unit

1989 BBJ Media Services, co-founder and managing director

1999 Carat International, chief operating officer

2001 Carat International, chief executive

2003 Aegis Media EMEA, chief executive

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